Monday, April 27, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Paul Christesen, Olympic Victor Lists and Ancient Greek History. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Pp. xvii, 580. ISBN 9780521866347. $115.00.
Reviewed by Stephen Brunet, University of New Hampshire

If one were to judge only from the first half of its title, Paul Christesen's Olympic Victor Lists and Ancient Greek History might seem to be aimed mainly at scholars who work on ancient athletics. In fact, ancient historians constitute its primary audience since this detailed and heavily annotated study provides the only complete treatment of the dating system that underlies the work of post-Thucydidean historians and, by extension, the chronology employed by modern scholars. Since Christesen calls into question the process by which Hippias of Elis constructed a framework for dating events in the archaic period, his work will certainly play a role in debates over such topics as the timing of Lycurgus' Spartan reforms and the date of the Pindaric odes. In addition, Christesen traces the nearly millennium-long process by which the Greeks first came to organize their history according to Olympiads, then accommodated the histories of the Romans and other non-Greek people within this scheme, and finally adapted it to the needs of an increasingly Christianized world. The production of Olympic victor lists turns out to be one of the longest-lived and most practical of Greek intellectual enterprises. Moreover, the attempt to record all relevant historical events in terms of Olympiads was comparable to Pliny the Elder's effort to catalog all useful knowledge about the natural world or Diderot's desire to compile a hierarchically arranged encyclopedia of essential knowledge. Christesen thus reveals a side of ancient information science that has not been well explored and deserves further attention.1

The evidence for the activities of Hippias, Aristotle, and other chronographers is fragmentary and not generally accessible. One valuable feature of Christesen's work is that he has assembled virtually all the pertinent sources for Olympic victory lists, along with much of the evidence concerning the victor lists for the Pythian games and other festivals, and the records of the Sicyonian, Spartan, and Athenian kings.2 Much of this material is contained in the seventeen appendices, with both the Greek text and a translation conveniently provided. Less convenient is the fact that understanding Christesen's arguments requires constant reference to the appropriate appendices. Yet this is a small price to pay since he has provided all the material one would need to debate him about the unreliability of early Greek chronology or any of his other conclusions. Similarly, Christesen's collection of material and extensive bibliography has made it much easier to introduce students to the intricacies of Greek chronology, especially if Jacoby's Die Fragmente der griechischen Historiker and similar works are not readily available.

Christesen's first chapter lays out the rationale for undertaking this study. While individual authors of Olympic victor lists, notably Julius Africanus, have received considerable attention, surprisingly no large scale investigations exist of all the types of ancient literature in which catalogs of Olympic victors play a major role.3 In itself this may not seem a compelling reason for such an extensive study. The importance of Olympic victor lists, though, is revealed by the overview he provides here of the many authors including Aristotle, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and Eusebius whose works depended heavily on Olympic victor lists and whose desire to organize history in this fashion illuminates the processes of Greek historical thinking. Since his audience may not be knowledgeable about the Panhellenic festivals, he includes a brief introduction to the history of the games as it relates to his later chapters. More important for his later arguments is the classification scheme he lays out to deal with the potentially bewildering assortment of treatises focused primarily on listing all or some Olympic victors, histories of the Olympic games in which victor lists play a major role, and historical projects that do not relate directly to the Olympics but in which a chronology based on the Olympic victors represented an organizing principle or was instrumental to the composition.

For scholars interested in Archaic and Classical Greece, the second chapter is of prime importance since it deals with Hippias' decision to assemble the first list of Olympic victors. Christesen's thesis is that Hippias was inspired to work on Olympic chronology not out of an interest in the subject per se but due to a desire to engage in the debate over Elis' relationship to its neighbors, especially Sparta. Christesen is inclined to think that Hippias settled on a 776 B.C. date for the start of the Olympics because it synchronized Iphitus and Lycurgus. This would imply that the "renewal" of the games in Iphitus' time was done with Spartan support for Elis' control of the Olympics. Even discounting this scenario, Christesen establishes that the Eleans did not possess any record of victors that Hippias could simply publish, as has often been assumed. Rather Hippias was forced to compile this list himself and the evidence he had at his disposal--notably reports by families of their victorious ancestors and inscriptions--was not easily datable. Putting the earliest victors in order, much less working back from his own time to figure out the date of the first Olympics was largely a process of guesswork. The consequence is that we can have far more confidence in the names Hippias provides us for early victors than in the dates he assigned to their victories or even their relative order.

Since the archaeological evidence for the introduction of athletic contests at Olympia is equivocal at best and cannot be used to confirm the date Hippias picked for the start of the Olympics (a point that Christesen might have emphasized more in his introduction), the whole scaffolding on which eighth- and seventh-century chronology has been erected becomes quite shaky. Christesen does not explore the potential ramifications in great detail but cases that come to mind include the dates of many early authors, the connection between the Messenian wars and Spartan history (cf. pp. 112-122, appendix 10), and whether Pheidon of Argos was responsible for a standardization of weights and measures, along with the introduction of coinage.4 For sports historians, certain of the supposed facts about the early games also come into question. Notably, Spartan dominance of the games early on may have simply been the result of Hippias packing the early Olympiads with Spartan names (pp. 160, appendix 10). Christesen is also able to adduce a new solution to the vexed question of when athletic nudity was introduced (pp. 353-359). In short, Orsippos was the first athlete to be crowned naked but the 720 B.C. date assigned to Orsippos was the result of guesswork. This would resolve the conflict with Thucydides' claim that nudity had only been introduced shortly before his time.

Chapter three provides a synoptic view of anagraphai, histories of the Olympic games that included registers of victors. This discussion is followed by an examination of what Christesen terms "standard catalogs." These lists of Olympic victors represented an outgrowth of anagraphai but lacked any information beyond a listing of names and circulated as independent documents. He views anagraphai as having a very limited life, beginning with Hippias in c. 400 B.C. and ending with Eratosthenes in c. 316 B.C., at which point they were rendered obsolete by local histories and specialized accounts of the games (how such accounts differed from anagraphai is not made entirely clear). Our understanding of the content and format of anagraphai depends largely on Aristotle's work in this area: the fragments of his Olympic anagraphe, the slightly better attested anagraphe of the Pythian games he completed in conjunction with his pupil Callisthenes, and the sections of the Pindaric scholiasts and Pausanias' account of Delphi and Olympia that Christesen argues were dependent on Aristotle. In addition, we have fragments of Eratosthenes' Olympic anagraphe and his work appears to have resembled Aristotle's closely. Judging from these works, anagraphai included historical information, such as military or political attempts to control the games, accounts of the programs of the games, especially with regard to the addition and deletion of events, discussions of the development of athletics, stories about famous athletes, and catalogs not just of victors but of athletes who had won the periodos or multiple events at one iteration of the Olympics. It might have been useful to ask whether Aristotle's methodology in his other works would help us understand how he approached revising Hippias' work. On the other hand, the fact that Christesen is able to establish a connection between the limited remains of Aristotle's anagraphai and authors such as Pausanias suggests than many of the stories about early athletes and the games that figure prominently in later authors derive from Aristotle, even if the connection cannot be proved.

In addition to collecting material of interest to later scholars, Aristotle and Callisthenes made one other essential contribution, the decision to number groups of Pythian victors starting from the beginning of the games and then to extend this practice to Olympic victors. The numbering of successive Olympiads is a feature that Christesen argues was not present in Hippias' work but was a prominent feature of standard catalogs of Olympic victors. That these catalogs originated as part of anagraphai is demonstrated by the order in which the victors are listed, which follows the order events were introduced, an important topic in anagraphai. Likewise, these catalogs include very little information about the victors because these athletes' contributions to the development of their respective sports and other such topics were dealt with separately in anagraphai. Christesen does not consider the significance of the extra material that is included, e.g. the notation that a wrestler won akoniti (without facing any competition) or the strange note that an athlete won the pentathalon in "the friendliest fashion" (POxy XXIII 2381). I suspect these details might provide a clue to the intended audience of standardized catalogs since these lists resemble modern baseball statistics more than something that could be used for dating historical events.

In view of the importance we attach to absolute dating, historians were surprisingly slow to realize that Olympic registers could be used to represent the temporal relationship of events outside the world of athletics. Once recognized, though, numerous authors composed treatises that utilized Olympic victor lists as a chronological framework. Based on the typology developed in chapter one, Christesen divides these works into two categories: Olympic chronographies, his term for the works comprising numbered lists of stadion victors synchronized to a few key events, notably archon and other eponym lists, and Olympic chronicles, extensive collections of events arranged according to Olympiads. Chronographies are the subject of chapter four, although some authors wrote both types of works. Dionysius of Halicarnassus is discussed at this point; Castor of Rhodes is largely relegated to the next chapter. Christesen starts with Eusebius, presumably because his chronography is the best preserved and involves the most complex questions concerning sources and originality. Following the lead of Mosshammer and others, Christesen argues that the Chronographia evolved in the following fashion.5 The stories about athletes that now come at the end of the list of victors in the Greek but not the Armenian version were added by Panodoros when he copied and updated Eusebius. Christesen does not consider Panodoros' source for these stories, although this might reveal what material he had at his disposal besides Eusebius since he mentions some well known athletes like Cleitomachos but also a wrestler from the time of Theodosios the Great. The remainder of the Chronographia was not just copied from Africanus, as long supposed, but was Eusebius' own work. He did draw on Africanus but ultimately relied on the Olympic victor list of the otherwise unknown Cassius Longinus. Eusebius' victor list included only stadion victors numbered by Olympiads and a few references to other events, such as the founding of Rome, since this was sufficient to establish the relationship between Olympiads and other landmark dates. All of this was done as a prelude to the creation of the Chronikoi Kanones, a massive timeline that cross-referenced Olympiad dates with many other systems, including the Athenian archon list and, since Christian chronology was of foremost importance for Eusebius, years figured from the birth of Abraham.

The desire to create an Olympic chronography as a preliminary to projects of wider historical reach was typical of the two other chronographies for which we have evidence. In the case of Timaeus, the chronology formulated in his Olympic victor list did not become a central feature of his historical works but was utilized only when he desired to establish an especially important date. In contrast, Dionysius of Halicarnassus synchronized Olympiads, Athenian archons, Roman magistrates, and Pontic kings in his Chronoi to establish the chronological organization for the whole of the Antiquitates Romanae. While the Antiquitates Romanae start with Olympiad 68 since his interest there is in Roman affairs, his Chronoi seems to have reached back to the first Olympiad, as was standard practice for victor lists of all types, and in composing it he had access to Timaeus, Polybius, (both of whom had already dated the founding of Rome in terms of Olympiads), Eratosthenes, and several Roman historians, some of whom seem to have already employed Olympiad dates. The subject of why and how Roman historians came to use a Greek chronological system might bear further investigation.

By their nature, Olympic chronicles tended to be outdated once a new version was composed. Somewhat oddly, the two best preserved examples are not discussed in detail in chapter five, Dionysius of Halicarnassus' Antiquitates Romanae because it was already covered in chapter four and Diodorus Siculus' Bibliotheca Historica on the grounds that it is well known and had been treated earlier in connection with Timaeus. Of the remaining authors of Olympic chronicles (Philochorus, Ctesicles [vel Stesicleides], Castor, Thallus, Phlegon, the anonymous authors of POxy I 12 and XVII 2082, Cassius Longinus, and Dexippus), some included complete lists of Olympic victors but the more common practice was to use numbered Olympiads and the name of just the stadion victor. Several adopt an annalistic format with Olympiads subdivided into years, often marked in terms of Athenian archons. Information listed might include such events as the Athenian census under Demetrius of Phaleron, the careers of the Pergamene kings, and events before the founding of the Olympics, and, if we include Diodorus and Dionysius, the development of Roman power. As a form of literature, Olympic chronicles had a long life, stretching from Philochorus late in the fourth century B.C. to Dexippus early in the third century A.D., at which point Roman emperors replaced Olympiads as the significant chronological marker.

Overall Christesen is careful not push the evidence beyond what it can bear, especially given that we often possess only the name of a work or a glancing reference to its contents. In addition to the appendices, Christesen's arguments are bolstered by numerous charts which often collect evidence that is interesting for other purposes, e.g. table 7 collects all the inscriptions recording victors in local contests. Christesen's desire to assign every Olympic victor list to a specific category, however, may have obscured a crucial issue, namely why authors came to view Olympic chronology as a useful historical tool. In particular, while Christesen is not unaware of the connection between Eratosthenes, Timaeus, and Philochorus, their contributions are relegated to different chapters. One loses sight of the fact that their works were inspired by a common desire for a chronological system that would span the Greek world. This desire in turn arose from an interest in composing histories covering wide swaths of territory, including interactions with the Romans, somewhat in the style of Ephorus' universal history but in a chronological, not topical fashion. Of the available chronological systems, Olympic victor lists represented the best available tool since they established absolute dates for famous individuals who were not just of local importance but who came from throughout the Greek world. While not answered by Christesen, this represents the sort of question it will be possible to explore now that he has traced how, in a process that was neither simple nor automatic, athletes became the basis on which Greeks assigned dates to all the significant events in their history.


1.   For other recent work on ancient information science, see J. König and T. Whitmarsh (edd.), Ordering Knowledge in the Roman Empire. Cambridge University Press, 2007.
2.   The exceptions are authors whose works are easily accessible (e.g. Dionysius of Halicarnassus), along with Julius Africanus, Eusebius, and Panodoros. As Christesen realized, a new edition and translation of Africanus was forthcoming at the time he was writing: J. Wallraff, J.Martin, R. Umberto, K. Pinggéra, W. Adler (edd.), Chronographiae: The Extant Fragments. W. de Gruyter, 2007. For Eusebius, Christesen provides extensive material drawn from P. Christesen and Zara Martirosova-Torlone, "The Olympic Victor List of Eusebius: Background, Text, and Translation." Traditio 61 (2006) 31-93.
3.   See, in particular, Martin Wallraff (ed.), Julius Africanus und die christliche Weltchronistik. Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur 157. W. de Gruyter, 2006 (also includes articles on Eusebius, particularly the Armenian text).
4.   For a wide-ranging reassessment of these dates, see P.-J. Shaw, Discrepancies in Olympiad Dating and Chronological Problems of Archaic Peloponnesian History. Historia Einzelschriften 166. Franz Steiner Verlag, 2003. Chapters 1 and 2 also contain an interesting discussion of the relatively late development of the "chronological imperative," the belief that the temporal relationship of historical events can and should be expressed in terms of a some absolute standard, e.g. numbered Olympiads or archon dates.
5.   A. Mosshammer, The Chronicle of Eusebius and Greek Chronographic Tradition. Bucknell University Press, 1979.

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